FIRST SENTENCES IN DETAIL: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 2

I won’t stay stuck on this Amazing Stories series every week, but I wanted to touch back right away after starting out last week with a look at the completely out of context first and last lines. This week, let’s just ruminate on the first sentences and see what we might be able to learn from them.

Remember what Lester Dent says in his Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot: “First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.”

First, we can see how these stack up to that, starting with “introduce your hero.”

Of the twenty-one stories in this issue (still amazed at the quantity of content there!), a cursory glance shows that exactly two-thirds of them, fourteen stories, begin either in the first person point of view of a character we can at least assume for now is the “hero,” or identifies a character by name in the first line:

 

As Obligated by Armstrong Livingston

Sir Geoffrey Coombe, Bart., snorted contentedly as his round bald head and his plum white shoulders emerged above the waters of his morning tub; without troubling to open his eyes, he reached over the edge of his porcelain container and groped blindly along the length of the heated towel rail.

Here we meet Sir Geoffrey Coombe, but he’s not quite in the middle of some sort of action scene or anything, is he? Dent says, “and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.” But I’m not getting that from this first line!

The Rajah’s Gift by E. Hoffman Price

Strange tales are told of the rajah of Laera-Kai, of the justice he dealt, of the rewards he gave; but the strangest of all these many tales is that of the gift he gave to Zaid, the Persian who had served him long and well.

Likewise this would seem to indicate that our “hero” is Laera-Kai—or will it turn out to be Zaid? That doesn’t matter, to me at least. What’s most important, and what we’re looking for in this weird exercise in going back to the fundamentals, is that it begins with characters. We read stories to inhabit a person, not a setting, not a theme or an idea, but a fellow traveler who will take us on a journey through that setting, winding through a plot, to hopefully leave us a bit smarter in some way or another (theme).

White Man’s Madness by Lenore E. Chaney

Hour after hour John Martin staggered up the steep trail, singing bits of ribald songs picked up here and there throughout a rather free and easy past.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see John Martin staggering up a hill in any other condition but “free and easy,” but where I think he might pass Lester Dent’s vague test is that he’s “singing bits of ribald songs picked up here and there throughout a rather free and easy past.” Is that hinting that John Martin’s present is neither free nor easy? Since this story was published in Amazing Stories, I think it’s safe to assume it is not.

Red and Black by Irvin Mattick

Yong Lo was a reptile with an artist’s soul.

Bonus points for the character’s name immediately up front, but I’m getting the feeling that Yong Lo is not the hero but the villain of this piece. As such, should it even be on this list? Still, I might actually go so far as to rewrite Dent’s formula to read:

First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the villain and show him being villainous. Hint at a mystery, a menace, or a problem to be solved by a hero to be named later.

It is my firm belief that the only story structure you really need to embrace is that the villain starts the story and the hero ends it.

When We Killed Thompson by Strickland Gillilan

My, how I used to lie awake nights, staring into the darkness of the attic, wishing we hadn’t done it!

Ah, the classic opener in which we’re told up front that something went terribly wrong then the story circles back to show that play out. This is a bit old fashioned by today’s standards and could be read as a spoiler. Now we know that the as yet unnamed narrator will live to regret what’s about to happen, so at least we know that things won’t work out well in the end—but the bigger spoiler, for my money, is that now we know the end of his/her emotional arc as well. Whatever happens, it ends in regret.

On the Highway by Cargray Cook

My twenty-first birthday.

Pregnant with possibility… I guess. I’m assuming the unnamed narrator is the hero, but I could be wrong. This reads passive to me. Is that really the strongest detail to start with? We’ll have to actually read on to really judge that, I guess, but somewhere Lester Dent is shaking his head.

The Ocean Leech by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

I heard Boucke beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door and the wind whistling under the cracks.

It’s a reasonable guess to assume that the first person narrator is the hero and Boucke might end up as a minor player, bringing news of some kind of emergency. I think this covers what Dent was asking for, more or less, and at the very least hints that something’s afoot. It has action in it. And by action I mean: a character is doing anything. And “beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door” at least implies some urgency.

Luisma’s Return by Arthur J. Burks

Christophe, who called himself Henri I, Emperor of Northern Haiti, was the greatest monster in all history.

I bet this Christophe guy, like Yong Lo in “Red and Black,” is actually the villain of the story. That works for me, but unfortunately, he isn’t doing anything right away. This definitely makes me fear for an info dump to follow, in which we have to be educated on the life and sins of the Emperor of Northern Haiti before anything like a story begins. I hope I’m wrong!

A Changeling Soul by Victor Lauriston

Flora, hesitant, whispered: “It is—impossible.”

Now you’re talking—and starting with a woman, no less! That is a rare treat for these old science fiction magazines. I fear that we’ll find Flora fading into the background as things progress, but for this week let’s at least hold out hope that the “hero” of “A Changeling Soul” is actually a “heroine.” That aside, the fact that she’s clearly amazed by something makes me want to read the next sentence, so as first sentences go, it’s a success!

The Valley of Teeheemen by Arthur Thatcher

When Benton realized that Virginia and Holton had disappeared, he thought quickly of the best course to pursue.

And hopefully that’s all we get of the planning session!

The Remorse of Professor Panebianco by Greye La Spina

“Cielo, what an enormous crystal globe, Filippo!” exclaimed Dottore Giuseppe del Giovine, regarding the great inverted glass bell that hung over the professor’s dining table.

Whether Filippo or Giuseppe turns out to be either the hero or villain of the story, props for starting with a character speaking and/or doing something. And here we’re also being introduced to a thing that might end up being a McGuffin, or… who knows? We’re going have to read it to find out. Also, right away, I’m taking a wild guess that this story is set in Italy.

Arhl-a of the Caves by C.M. Edy, Jr.

When Arhl-a opened her eyes, darkness had settled over the universe.

Female protagonist number two! Down with the patriarchy! See, I told you the content of pulp stories wasn’t as casually misogynistic as the covers often were. Here we have our heroine named right up front (as well as in the title!), and something clearly bad is happening. Darkness settling over the universe can’t be good, right?

The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me.

Spoiler alert, I’ve read this story before and know where this is going but still, we begin with “I”—call him as much a “hero” as you might tend to find in a story by our old pal Howard Phillips, and in his own fashion he begins by setting a mood.

Something tells me H.P. Lovecraft and Lester Dent were more at odds, artistically, than they were simpatico. Lovecraft tends to start with grim foreboding then spiral into cosmic madness, revealing the “mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved” a bit more slowly. And the problem is only very rarely solvable.

Phantoms by Laurence R. D’Orsay

The only man who knew the story was Carson, and he never told it.

Hm. Is Carson the hero? Assuming “Phantoms” tells the story Carson never told, he’s at least a survivor of whatever it is that’s happened. But here’s another version of what we saw in the opening line of “When We Killed Thompson.” This feels less spoiler-ey, though, since we know at least Carson lived to (not) tell the tale, but have no sense of how he was affected by it except what we’re left to interpret from the fact that he never told it. And I like being able to bring some of my own active interpretation into a story, so I’ll just say I like this one, and am curious to see what Carson’s been hiding.

So then the rest of the stories started with something other than a character, hero or otherwise, so fall outside Lester Dent’s advice, but so what, really? Lester Dent has left us some interesting pointers, but let’s not allow anyone to force us to write to a template. Let’s see what the other third did here.

Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds by. J. Schlossel

On every hand huge brilliant suns, single or multiple, flashed past with their retinue of small dark planets.

This issue of Amazing Stories falls back far enough toward the beginnings of what we know as modern science fiction that starting up in space was probably eye-catching enough for SF readers of the time. There’s a poetry to this, too, that I really like. Screw the hero, let’s hear it for the solar system!

The Electric Chair by George Waight

The facts were carefully hushed up at the time.

Our third spoiler-ish opening, but I think this goes wrong by not attaching any sort of character to it. No one in particular is hushing up whatever it was, so we’re left with what, to me at least, feels a bit more like idle curiosity as to what might have been so bad that it was “hushed up at the time.”

The Fireplace by Henry S. Whitehead

When the Planter’s Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, burned to the ground in the notable fire of 1922, the loss of that section of the South could not be measured in terms of that ancient hostelry’s former grandeur.

Is this from the point of view of a building? This story opens like a newspaper article and honestly, that’s not a good thing. To my tastes, this is the worst first sentence of the lot. Back to the drawing board, Henry S. Whitehead!

Wings of Power by Lady Anne Bonny

The moon’s stealthy searchlight extended long, ghostly fingers into the darkened bedroom on the second floor of a fine old house that huddled between encroaching warehouses on a street that had known better days.

I need to do a little research to see if Lady Anne Bonny was the author’s real name* or if this is some dude writing under a frilly female pseudonym. That wouldn’t be at all out of the ordinary for the time. But let’s give Lady Anne the benefit of the doubt for now and credit Amazing Stories for not being 100% all male author, all the time. Whoever she was, though, I think Lady Anne packed a bit more information into that opener than one sentence should be tasked with carrying. And though her imagery is fun, if quaint, she’s starting with a version of the weather report, which I just… don’t…

Out of the Long Ago by Seabury Quinn

Two letters in the afternoon mail; both requiring answers.

Well, whoop-de-doo for the afternoon mail! Okay, I’m being unfair to one of the most successful authors of his day. This opening does promise that something interesting will be in both of two letters. But we have no idea who sent those letters and who received those letters. Hero? Villain? Both? Neither? I have questions, but I don’t feel desperate to find out what’s in those letters because they came to me in the abstract.

Fog by C. Franklin Miller

Some men are like the throb of a kettledrum.

I like to fancy myself one of those men. Anyway, I may as well be for all my wife and kids seem to hear what I’m saying.

Quick: Is that a metaphor or a simile?

The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone by Herman F. Wright

The ruins of historic old Wrightstone Castle still rear their crumbling towers above the dreary Hampton Bog, near Manchester, a fast decaying but fitting memorial to the foul deeds and fiendish proceedings that have taken place within its bleak walls.

It’s hard for me to criticize this when something similar is my favorite opening paragraph of all time. See The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Ms. Jackson did it better—much better—but if we compare just the two stories in this issue of Amazing Stories that start from the POV of a building, this one is better than “The Fireplace.”

 

Okay, then, fundamentals learned:

  • Lead with character—so your readers have a point of view to follow.
  • That character should be the hero if you agree with Lester Dent, or the villain if you agree with me. And you’re free to agree with both of us. I know I do!
  • Action = any character doing anything. Pounding on a door counts. It doesn’t have to be the middle of some violent fight scene.
  • Mood, if well conveyed, can replace action.
  • Opening with an info dump, a weather report, or an object in the abstract is not good.

What else?

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

* Turns out Anne Bonny was a real-life pirate. Might need to read this story to see if it was presented as if it were written by her. But then who did write it? The plot thickens!

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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